Jordan McNair's death brings back memories of Lombardi and Bob Ward - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Jordan McNair’s death brings back memories of Lombardi and Bob Ward

Bob Ward was the University of Maryland football coach from 1967 to 1968 with little success.

COLLEGE PARK, MD  – Pardon me while I get a little nostalgic for Bob Ward. Many years ago, he coached the University of Maryland football team, and he was so bad, so brutal (and so winless) that his entire team revolted and said they’d quit school rather than play one more set of downs for him.

But at least nobody died under Ward.

We now have a 19-year old kid named Jordan McNair, out of Baltimore’s prestigious McDonough School, who collapsed after a sweltering Terrapin squad workout this summer and later died, and the current (for the moment) coach, D.J. Durkin, and members of his staff have been suspended.

Jordan McNair via Facebook

But McNair’s death is reportedly just the most devastating aspect of Durkin’s reign. ESPN has reported players forced to eat until they vomited, players “routinely the targets of obscenity-laced epithets meant to mock their masculinity,” of players dragged off the field if they collapsed during workouts.

Somewhere in heaven (if God is forgiving), Bob Ward must be thinking: How come my players revolted, and Durkin’s didn’t?

Ward was an earlier-era role model for this kind of coaching behavior. In his day, which was half a century ago but seems closer for those of us who knew him close-up, he helped set a sad and destructive template for an entire profession, to wit:

Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr (Creative Commons) Lombardi’s famous line: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” He borrowed the famous line from UCLA Bruins Coach Henry Russell ‘Red’ Sanders.

If you’re brutal and you win, you’re another Vince Lombardi. If you’re brutal and you lose, you’re just a loser.

Ward lapsed into the second category – but his brutality, and the allegations against Durkin, mark both coaches as unfortunate prototypes of their profession, not as aberrations.

Can we offer a brief remembrance of Ward?

In his playing days, he led Maryland to a national championship and won All-America honors as both an offensive and defensive lineman – astonishingly, at 5-feet-9, 185 pounds. If that reads like a misprint, you can find verification in a whole bunch of old newspaper stories.

When they brought Ward back here to coach in the late 1960s, he was a disaster. He imagined every player would have his over-achiever animal instincts. In two years, Ward’s teams went 2-and-17. But that’s not what made his entire squad of 120 players revolt.

He was brutal. In practice, he’d punch his players, kick them, spit on them, curse them, threaten to take away their scholarships. Memory is still vivid of Ward attacking a lineman named Ben Aquilina during practice one day.

“Aquilina,” he screamed, “you’re not willing to pay the price.”

“Coach,” Aquilina replied, rather gently, “I’ve had three knee operations. How much price do you want me to pay?”

Bob Ward was considered one of the greatest linemen to play for Maryland. He was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980. He didn’t have the same success as a coach.

You play football, there’s always a price to pay. Torn tendons and broken bones are more common than blocked punts. Victories are gained by playing through pain. Coaches feel the need to toughen any player they perceive to be unwilling to “pay the price.”

And some coaches don’t know where to draw the line.

The legendary Vince Lombardi was a martinet. “He’s not prejudiced,” one of his players famously joked. “He treats us all like dogs.” But because Lombardi was a winner, he was glorified.

Coaches everywhere still see Lombardi as their role model.

Ohio State’s Woody Hayes was cut from the same growling, tough-guy mold – a big winner, and therefore a football god – until he got caught punching an opposing player who’d just intercepted an Ohio State pass.

Over the weekend, we learned, Maryland’s athletic department submitted a proposal that would fundamentally improve how health care is delivered to athletes. The plan was submitted a year ago. But it was never implemented by the university administration.

Maybe we expect toughness from coaches – but not from university presidents.

Play through the pain, guys.

The truth is, that’s the mantra of countless football coaches across America, including Maryland’s Durkin. We kid ourselves when we imagine otherwise. It’s a brutal sport.

But some coaches contribute unnecessarily and unforgivably to the brutality. Bob Ward was one of those coaches, and his entire team revolted.

At least nobody died under his watch.


About the author

Michael Olesker

Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker's Baltimore: If You Live Here, You're Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts' Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press. Contact the author.

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